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What we learned from the opening day of Trump’s impeachment trial

President Trump’s impeachment trial, only the third such proceeding in U.S. history, opened in the Senate Thursday. Chief Justice John Roberts and 99 senators were sworn in to their official trial roles. Meanwhile, new evidence related to Trump’s Ukraine policy was publicly released. Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss the trial and Lev Parnas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Susan Collins of Maine has become the first Republican to say that she would likely support a call for witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Trump.

    That news came late today, as the trial officially got under way in solemn opening ceremonies.

    It was only the third such proceeding in the nation's history. Seven Democratic House members, named managers, formally delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate chamber.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    House Resolution 755, impeaching Donald John Trump, president of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment investigation, read aloud the two charges. Abuse of power.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    President Trump solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 United States presidential election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And obstruction of Congress.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Donald J. Trump has directed the unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance of subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives, pursuant to its sole power of impeachment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two hours later, John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, arrived at the Capitol.

  • John Roberts:

    Senator, I attend the Senate, in conformity with your notice, for the purpose of joining with you for the trial of the president of the United States. I'm now prepared to take the oath.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Will you place your left hand…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And was sworn in to oversee the trial by Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the president pro tem of the Senate.

    Roberts, in turn, swore in 99 senators, who said "I do" in unison, agreeing to deliver impartial justice in their service as jurors in the trial.

    At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump offered his own view of the day's events.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think it should go very quickly. It's a hoax. It's a hoax. Everybody knows that. It's a complete hoax, the whole thing with Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office concluded today that the Trump White House decision to withhold congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine for a time was illegal.

    It said — quote — "Faithful execution of the law doesn't permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law."

    The White House Budget Office fired back, saying the decision to withhold the funds was — quote — "consistent with the president's priorities and with the law."

    Back at the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the finding fits a broader pattern of abuse by the Trump administration.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    The OMB, the White House, the administration broke — I'm saying this — broke the law.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Republicans, like Senator Lindsey Graham, downplayed the GAO opinion.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    They got the money. They got the money on September the 11th.

  • John Roberts:

    Court of impeachment is adjourned until Tuesday, January 21.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Senate now begins a four-day holiday weekend. The impeachment trial resumes on Tuesday, with party leaders still sparring over whether to call witnesses.

    Here with me now with more on what is going on behind the scenes, our Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, and our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    Hello to both of you on this Thursday.

    So, Lisa, let me start with you. Give us a sense of what the senators were saying as they began this solemn procedure. And then we have the news just literally a few minutes ago that Senator Susan Collins is calling for witnesses.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is significant.

    I also talked to another Republican, Senator Ted Cruz, who is trying broker a deal over witnesses. And he seemed to indicate there was room for witnesses as well, without going as far as Susan Collins. So, there was a change of momentum perhaps happening on that question today. We will see.

    But as to what it was like in that chamber, Judy, it was extraordinary. I have been in so many dramatic rooms on Capitol Hill. This was not a dramatic room. But it was an incredibly focused room. There was a sense of the profound, a goosebump moment, when you see every senator raising their hand like that.

    And, Judy, something people might not realize from TV, no one in that room, including senators, had any kind of device, no form of communication with the outside world. Everyone was focused on what was happening in that trial, in a way I have never seen before.

    One other note, security is at the most tight I have ever seen in the U.S. Senate. There were very few protesters, relatively, today, but they are taking the threat of anything very seriously right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when they go into that chamber, they can't bring a smartphone, they can't bring anything else. And they are to pay attention.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    No, and we received extra credentials to get into that part of the Capitol just for the impeachment trial.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, you have been talking to your sources at the White House all day long. How are they processing all this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump and the White House are processing all this by lashing out at Democrats at the start of the president's — what will be this historic Senate trial to see whether or not the president will be, in fact, removed from office.

    Many people think that the president will be acquitted. But today reminded me of the fact that the White House and President Trump understand optics and understand that his legacy is still at stake here.

    So now we have the president entering into this new phase of his presidency, where he's going to be on trial, and he's going to have to defend himself against these allegations in a way that he hasn't really done before.

    He's done social media. He's had White House aides talking on the lawn, but this is different, Judy. So there was a sense today that the White House was taking this very, very seriously.

    Of course, they're also gearing up for their own fight. And a word on Susan Collins. I have been hearing for several days now that the White House is gearing up for Republican senators, enough Republican senators to back the idea of having witnesses.

    So the White House thinks there will be witnesses at the Senate trial.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting.

    Separately, Yamiche, today, and right on the eve of this trial, you have the Government Accounting (sic) Office coming out with this detailed statement saying that what the president did in withholding aid to Ukraine was illegal.

    What is the White House saying about that?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, we have to really explain to people the idea that this Government Accountability Office, it's a nonpartisan watchdog group, is saying that President Trump broke the law and put his own policy priorities ahead of that of Congress.

    And that's because that $391 million that President Trump and the White House chose to freeze was already appropriated by Congress. So the White House now is pushing back on that.

    There was, of course, that statement that you had in your piece on the show — from the Office of Management and Budget. But I have also been talking to officials. And here's what one person told me on background, not for attribution to that person.

    That person said: "The findings are a pretty clear overreach, as they attempt to insert themselves into the media's controversy of the day."

    So what you have is the Office of Management and Budget saying that this nonpartisan watchdog group is actually wanting to insert itself in this impeachment fight.

    That person also told me that it would be irresponsible to listen to this government office, and that this government office's opinion really shouldn't be taken into account.

    So what you have is the White House really, really pushing back hard on this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We hear you on that.

    But, meanwhile, separately from all this, there's been another development in the impeachment investigation over questions about how much the president knew — President Trump knew about efforts to pressure Ukraine's president to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.

    Lisa looked at those claims today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His name, Lev Parnas, has long been in impeachment stories. Last night, in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, we heard his explosive claims in his voice.

  • Lev Parnas:

    It was never about corruption.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Parnas worked in Ukraine for and with President Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

    Parnas says the mission was in part to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter's business dealings.

    Now Parnas says President Trump was directly involved.

  • Lev Parnas:

    President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all of my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Those allegations are at the center of President Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. The articles of impeachment charge that the president abused power by trying to use his office to force Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

    But the president's allies point out that Parnas' motives are suspect. He has been indicted campaign on finance violations.

    White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement today that Parnas was — quote — "desperate to reduce his exposure to prison" and added, "The president did nothing wrong."

    Parnas is implicating more than the president, though. He claims Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Bill Barr and Republican Congressman Devin Nunes all knew about and had roles in the Ukraine scheme. All three officials have repeatedly denied that.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Parnas' claims should be investigated, but the Trump Justice Department is biased, she charges, and won't act.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi:

    Under other circumstances, if somebody like Parnas came forward, and there was evidence, there was reason to believe that there was — some of that was factual, there would be a special prosecutor appointed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Parnas handed over hundreds of pages of text messages, notes and letters to House officials in recent days, something senators sitting in the impeachment trial are just seeing themselves as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, you have looked at this.

    How would — what would you say the most significant allegations for Parnas — and does he have evidence to back it up?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Those are two very different questions.

    On some of the most significant allegations, it's not clear what the evidence is. And that includes other sitting officials in the Trump administration.

    Let's look again at who else he's implicating here, three sitting Cabinet members, the vice president, secretary of state, and the attorney general there, as well as the top Republican, Devin Nunes, on this House Intelligence Committee.

    Parnas says all of them were involved in this scheme. But, honestly, Judy, when you look at the evidence there, he hasn't presented much evidence about that yet, just his word.

    However, there is evidence, he's saying, and some notes that he has that, for example, a trip that Vice President Pence was to take to visit President Zelensky was canceled specifically to pressure Ukraine to get these investigations. That is new information.

    And there's some notes he wrote to himself that might back that up. That is incredibly serious.

    One other thing that I don't want overlooked in this, though, we have a text message from Rudy Giuliani that has bearing perhaps on the philosophy of impeachment.

    Giuliani wrote to Parnas: "Bribery is universally defined as offering something of value to affect official action."

    I'm going to hold that up for a second. In that case, Giuliani was talking about whether Joe Biden or Hunter Biden or someone in the Obama administration had used bribery to try and help the Biden family.

    But, here, if you apply this definition, this is a definition that Democrats are using about President Trump and Rudy Giuliani's own actions in trying to, in Democrats' words, extort something from Ukraine.

    So it's a very interesting notion of how Rudy Giuliani defines bribery in his own texts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very interesting, for sure.

    And, Yamiche, as the White House looks at all this, what do they see as potentially most damaging for them here?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The potentially most damaging that Lev Parnas is doing is implicating everyone around President Trump, including himself.

    Now, the president maintains and the people around the president say Lev Parnas doesn't say that directly that the president told Rudy Giuliani or that he never heard the president tell Rudy Giuliani, I need you to make sure Ukraine does these investigations or we will not give them that military aid.

    But, that said, there is a lot of information that Lev Parnas is turning over to Congress. And I want to point out there are hundreds of pages, but there's one page that really sticks out that can be problematic for the president.

    And that's a letter that Rudy Giuliani sent to the president of Ukraine on May 10, 2019. And here's part of that letter.

    It says — he says: "I am private counsel to President Donald J. Trump. Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen, not as president of the United States."

    Now, that's problematic, because President Trump and Rudy Giuliani have always been saying that they were doing this work because of — they were looking into corruption in Ukraine and looking into corruption in — on the part of possibly Joe Biden and Hunter Biden, and, as a result, they had to be looking at this stuff.

    But what we see now is that Rudy Giuliani is saying, actually, I'm acting in the private interests of President Trump as a private citizen.

    And I have been texting with Rudy Giuliani all day. He doubled down on that idea and said: I was always acting as private counsel to the president as a private citizen.

    Even though the president is saying, of course, that he doesn't Lev Parnas, he's also saying that this letter is something that he would back. He said he hasn't actually read the letter. But he said: Anything that Rudy Giuliani wrote, I would be backing because he's a good lawyer and he's a good person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to follow every single day.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, thank you both.

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